Can we actually stop using fossil fuels?
Is it smart—or crazy stupid—to rely solely on wind, solar, and hydro?
This past July, as Dawn Lippert surfed the swells at her home beach in Honolulu, a rogue board sprang up and slammed her between the eyes. It could have been a knockout blow. But Lippert, a former high school soccer champ who had taken up surfing when she arrived here a decade ago—fresh from Yale and working as an energy consultant to the state as it began to wean itself from fossil fuels—possesses a resilient athleticism. She managed to steady herself as the remorseful owner of the wayward board paddled her ashore. Once at the hospital, she received 12 stitches that snaked between her eyes and a parade of concerned nurses. Her fiancé, Brody, had explained that their wedding was a few weeks away. “Oh, honey,” one nurse clucked, “this is not going to be pretty.” As is her habit in the face of rough odds and bruising encounters, Lippert shrugged it off. “I was just grateful that it wasn’t my eye,” she recalls. It’s easy to draw conclusions about a person based on one anecdote. But Lippert is a true optimist. Which is a good thing, because as the world warms and humanity hurtles toward a catastrophe of its own making, she is part of an army of innovators who believe they can help the rest of us engineer our way out of global warming. Lippert is in Hawaii because the action is here. In 2015, the archipelago state became the first to legally require that its utilities generate 100 percent of their electricity from renewable sources. Deadline: 2045. Lippert is now backing dozens of companies to help the state achieve its radical goal. A Seattle native, Lippert is CEO of Elemental Excelerator. It is a nonprofit accelerator that finds, funds, and nurtures the inchoate technologies that, she hopes, can extinguish our fossil-fuel habit. She looks for innovators who have had a “Eureka!” moment, who have seen something the rest of us have overlooked. “If these technologies are successful,” she says, “they will affect a billion people. They will change the world.”
Through the roof
But first, she has to help change Hawaii. The challenges are many. The state’s utility consortium, Hawaiian Electric Companies, must corral the work of other utilities across the state’s eight islands. With the help of private players like Lippert, it must develop things like battery-backed residential rooftop solar tech with voltage-smoothing inverters, wind farms, aggregated demand-response software, and peak-shifting electric-car charging. So far, it has achieved 27 percent renewable electricity.
Lippert and her team have assembled an impressive portfolio of firms—in fields like energy storage, microgrid hardware, machine learning software for energy efficiency—to get the rest of the way there. In its five years, Elemental has awarded $22 million to 63 startups from around the world, resulting in 35 demonstration projects in Hawaii. It has also attracted powerful allies to contribute to its war chest, including the U.S. Navy (which gives $6 million a year), the U.S. Department of Energy, international electric utilities, and the Emerson Collective, an investment and philanthropic platform run by the late Steve Jobs’ wife, Laurene Powell Jobs.
The mainland is closely monitoring the state’s experiment, and thus some of Lippert’s novel solutions, because going full green tech has captured the imagination of energy experts, planners, and policymakers. “Everyone is watching Hawaii,” says Stanford University’s Mark Z. Jacobson, an atmospheric scientist and the academic godfather of the movement. “Everyone wants to see who will be the first to run on 100 percent renewable power and keep the grid stable at low cost.”
Until 10 years ago, the United States got less than 10 percent of its electric-generation capacity from renewables—and most of that came from the great dams of the West and Northwest. But increasing alarm over our future, and the plunging costs of wind and solar power, is reshaping the utility landscape. More than half of new electric generation in 2016 came from the sky and wind. That holds true even in red states, where many don’t believe in the science of climate change. To some, it’s looking a lot like we can actually wean ourselves from oil and gas in one generation. What was a nerdy dream a decade ago has grown into a movement. Politicians have jumped aboard, pledging their localities to an all-in green future. As of last year, 47 American cities have joined the fight, including major population centers like Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and San Diego.
Of course, not everyone is cheering. Fossil-fuel advocates warn of an all-too-serious challenge. “Hospitals, sewage treatment, clean water, industrial production, communications networks, iPads, etcetera, all require copious amounts of energy,” says Mike Krancer, an energy lawyer and consultant in Pennsylvania and prominent supporter of fracking and natural gas. “That is not going to come from renewables at a 100 percent level—not now, not ever.” Even some of the people who favor wind, solar, and hydro think total reliance on it is a bad idea—even for a tiny island state. “It is an absolutely unachievable target if you want to have affordable energy and reliability,” says Charles McConnell, the executive director of the Energy and Environment Initiative at Rice University and President Obama’s former assistant secretary of fossil energy.
But the not-ever argument is one Lippert likes to have. Sitting in a Honolulu park, where she takes new entrepreneurs for training, she says the technologies Elemental is backing today will help create a green-powered future that is not only possible, but inevitable. “The market is ready for these solutions,” Lippert says, perched beneath a monkeypod tree. “Our role is to invest now so they can scale further and faster.”
For most of its history, the Hawaiian Islands, lying 2,500 miles from the nearest landmass, grew energy. For centuries locals lit their way with oil from the kukui nut, the fruit of the state tree. In 1887, they managed to electrify the royal Iolani Palace—four years before Washington, D.C., managed to electrify the White House.
American-style modernism changed that. As the population grew, so did the demand for power-hungry conveniences. Just 15 years ago, Hawaii imported 90 percent of its annual fuel—$5 billion worth. The average household electricity bill stood at roughly four times the mainland’s, even though locals use less energy than most of the nation.
What a breeze
The situation became so crushing that in 2008, the state set a goal to move to 70 percent clean power by 2030 through renewables and energy-efficiency savings like tougher building codes. Lippert, then working as a consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton in Washington, D.C., was among the specialists who flew in to devise a game plan. While it called for solar and biofuels, it also envisioned huge wind farms on smaller, less-populated islands like Moloka’i and Lanai, connected via deep-sea cable to Oahu, with its nearly 1 million residents and 9 million annual visitors.
The timing was perfect. Cheap Chinese solar panels, and Hawaii’s sunshine, propelled residential rooftop solar from a projected 23 megawatts of capacity by 2015 to 343 megawatts. During the run-up, Governor Neil Abercrombie pushed for a new liquid gas plant. The converts to green energy pushed back. They demanded a law that would prevent backsliding by requiring the entire state to run on nothing but renewables.
By then, the idea had already taken academic hold on the mainland. Just a few years earlier, in 2009, Mark Z. Jacobson helped author a groundbreaking paper in Scientific American. It mathematically challenged classic arguments of the fossil-fuel crowd: that renewables are too expensive and unreliable; that they are not powerful enough for industrial processes; that to get enough energy from wind and solar, we would have to cover an obscene amount of land with wind turbines or solar panels.
Last year, Jacobson laid out a road map for the U.S. and 138 other countries to go 100 percent renewable by 2050. His computer modeling demonstrates that fully green generation could be more affordable and reliable than today’s grid—assuming we prioritize storage. In addition to lithium-ion batteries, he calls for using pumped hydro (in which you use midday solar power to pump water uphill and then release it in times of need to power turbines downhill), existing hydroelectric reservoirs, and underground thermal energy storage (UTES), in which you pump hot water into caverns, excavated pits or bored holes in the ground. The heat is then stored in the surrounding earth, or sometimes in stones, daily, weekly or even seasonally, and can warm buildings when needed.
The giving tree
This past June, 21 academics and energy researchers, many of whom favor renewables, refuted Jacobson’s earliest assumptions as delusional. His theory, they argued, would require us to build enough energy storage to put out two and a half times the power capacity of the entire national grid: 4 trillion kilowatt-hours. Nearly all of that would consist of UTES technologies that don’t yet exist at commercial scale. But the authors’ underlying concern was equally political. They worry that opponents could use Jacobson’s all-or-nothing approach to diminish the role of any green tech on the grid. Despite the fact that solar power has grown annually 68 percent during the past decade, it still accounts for only around 1 percent of our power. Jacobson has sued the study’s lead author for libel.
As mainland academics, partisans, and politicians debate the go-green movement, the voyage is already underway in the central Pacific. “Clearly in our island community, we are much more aware of the effects of climate change, global warming, and sea-level rise,” Governor David Ige said last June. “What we do impacts our environment because we know that leadership can start at home.” He concluded, “We here in Hawaii can make a statement and can lead the world if it’s important enough to us.”
Elemental’s open-plan workspace—in adowntown Honolulu high-rise—is a feel-good place, decorated with smiling pictures of young entrepreneurs from all over the world. The atmosphere is laid-back. It is unusual among accelerators for several reasons, but most obvious is that all but five of its of 19 staffers are women—and mostly women in their 20s and 30s. At kickoff meetings, Lippert gathers her company leaders for updates and support, but also for fun, like picnics at the beach, where everybody takes part in the traditional art of pounding taro root into poi, a local food. Frequently she organizes her intense newbies in a circle, asks them to put their hands in, and conducts a cheer.
Her organization is unique for another reason. It is a nonprofit investing in commercial technologies. As such, it typically takes just enough of a stake in a company so if it succeeds, Elemental can share in the proceeds to fund even more tech dreamers. Of the dozen companies Lippert and her selection team fund each year—out of 450 or so applicants—all must address a specific energy roadblock in Hawaii with a solution that could someday work on a larger scale. In addition to up to $1 million in funding, Elemental gives companies a chance to create an in-state pilot project that will test their tech and whether they can make money.
At first glance, energy generation here would seem easy. The state’s eight islands are resource rich: sun, trade winds, and an active volcano, which provides about 30 percent of the Big Island’s electricity from geothermal. But Colton Ching, a utility official overseeing the transition, says that even if the state used every piece of appropriate land for utility-scale wind and solar, it will still get Oahu, with just over two-thirds of the state’s population, “to just a little over 70 percent of its energy needs.”
So one of the things Lippert’s entrepreneurs want to provide is the other 30 percent. She directs me to a hillside off Oahu’s North Shore, where a company called TerViva has planted 50 stunning acres of pongamia trees. A Southeast Asian and Indian species, the tree has wide green leaves that produce thick clusters of flowers. These become pods with very oily seeds that can be processed into a renewable fuel.
The word “biofuel” leaves a bad taste in some mouths, due to the debacle that was corn ethanol: land-intensive, tough on soil, relatively expensive. But pongamia are inexpensive and soil friendly. Burning a gallon of fuel made from its seeds produces nearly as much energy as a gallon of diesel. It is a rare leguminous tree; it puts more nitrates into the soil than it takes out. And of course, the trees continuously take carbon dioxide out of the air. Since their crop is seeds, the plants don’t have to be cut down, and the soil never needs to be tilled. Some of Oahu’s power plants can burn raw pongamia oil. TerViva has turned the oil into biodiesel and even jet fuel that meets airplane-engine specifications.
Turning tree pods into jet fuel is a nice trick. The real challenge is imposing consistency on renewables that come and go with the wind and clouds. Homeowners who rely on wind power don’t want flickering lights, which represent a few seconds when the grid loses power from one source and rushes to replace it from another. Future networks must deliver power from these intermittent sources without missing an electron.
Lisa Laughner, a former Rolls-Royce executive, and her company, Go Electric, is trying to solve this. Her team, backed by Elemental, has installed hardware and software at Camp H.M. Smith, home to the U.S. Pacific Command, on Oahu. The gear monitors power-flow patterns to the millisecond and helps control the camp’s high-security 5-megawatt microgrid, which integrates diesel generators and solar.
But any renewable future must include reliable storage that can bank surplus power from wind and solar, and then release it on command. So far grid operators have found two solutions. One is the type of storage found in batteries. Another relies on de facto storage: smart devices that control power demand on appliances, mediating between peak-production and peak-demand times. Lippert and her team are looking at both solutions. In the second bucket, they’ve backed a company called Shifted Energy.
Shifted has retrofitted its grid-interactive devices onto water heaters at Kapolei Lofts, an affordable-housing complex. During the day, when there is excess solar on the grid, the devices can turn on the heaters (when few are at home and using them) to preheat H2O for evening showers. By equipping 1,000 water heaters with these devices, Shifted estimates it is creating up to 3 megawatt hours of storage from the excess solar.
Landlords love this project because it saves money on electricity bills. Governments love it because it brings the less affluent into the renewables revolution. And utilities love it because those are 3 megawatts—enough to power up to 1,000 homes—that it doesn’t have to produce and deliver during peak evening demand.
Water heaters are not the only tool in Lippert’s arsenal of storage alternatives. Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, companies have used metal flywheels as crude storage devices. Heavy spinning discs, they hold kinetic energy in their rotation. But because of their weight (100 pounds or more) and friction on bearings, they traditionally allow for a few minutes of emergency supply. That could change with a company Elemental is backing called Amber Kinetics.
In 2009, Edward Chiao, a UCLA engineering grad, teamed up with Seth Sanders, a UC Berkeley professor who had been researching flywheels since the 1990s, to found Amber. Together, they built a vacuum-sealed container and placed a 5,000-pound steel disc on a spindle inside and under a magnet. The magnet keeps the wheel from exerting too much downward force on the ball bearings and slowing down. Daytime solar power can spin the wheel, and after sunset, it can release up to 32 kilowatt hours of electricity (enough to power an average U.S. house for a day). In theory, flywheels could be scaled up to release hundreds of megawatts for up to four hours, enough for peak evening demand. Amber is testing its flywheel at Hawaiian Electric to evaluate its reliability and cost effectiveness at relieving Oahu’s day-time oversaturation of solar. Peter Rosegg, a spokesman for Hawaiian Electric, says the utility is open to this and all forms of storage. It plans for the batteries from electric cars to someday play a huge role in demand shifting.
It’s late summer, and Lippert and I are walking through downtown Honolulu. The sun is out, and the natural optimism of the climate is almost oppressive. Lippert is preparing for a three-week stint training a new set of entrepreneurs, in which she’ll stay up one night until 2 a.m. singing karaoke with them. Right now, she’s refreshed and enthusiastic. I ask the point of pushing to 100 percent. Wouldn’t getting to 70 be good enough, and let natural gas handle the rest? She admits the last 30 percent is “exponentially” harder than the first 30, but argues the effort is worth it anyway. “What is the danger of not doing this?” she says. “The risk of not doing this is greater than the risk of doing it.”
And, she points out, Hawaii is already proving the skeptics wrong. Renewable use jumped from 8 percent in 2008 to 27 percent in 2017. Moreover, the state has an aggressive schedule to roll out another 400 megawatts of wind and solar in the near future. Based on this pace, Hawaiian Electric recently put out a report estimating that it would reach the goal of 100 percent five years earlier than mandated by law, or by 2040.
That outlook is based on a few unproven assumptions. Looking out 20 years, for example, the state’s power plan says it will get hundreds of megawatts of offshore wind by using floating turbines, anchored to the sea floor. This hasn’t been done anywhere at an affordable scale, but Hawaii has enough faith in the emerging technology to include it.
And the state, like every place going 100 percent renewable, bets big on electric cars as its future transportation mode. Car batteries will play a crucial role in taking excess energy off the grid during peak solar hours and returning it at night if needed. Hawaii has the second-highest penetration of electric cars in the U.S., but it’s still under 1 percent.
After five years, Lippert can claim that a handful of companies are becoming commercially viable. Go Electric’s contract for smart microgrids at Camp Smith has proved so successful that it’s won similar work at the Army’s Fort Custer training base in Michigan and the Tooele Army Depot in Utah. Another, Stem, which uses learning software to automate energy-storage savings for schools and businesses, as well as provide grid services to utilities, has 29 customers on Oahu and is gaining them in California.
Of course, not all of the state’s technologies will or should be portable. Renewable electricity very much needs to be tailored to local natural resources. Places beyond these tiny volcanic islands have already figured that out. Iceland, which has exceptional geothermal, and Norway, which has abundant hydro, have maintained nearly 100 percent for years. In Denton, Texas, where the wind blows strong, officials expect the city to be fully wind-and solar-powered by the end of this decade. Burlington, Vermont, the first U.S. city to boast 100 percent, burns local wood chips for fuel and has plenty of hydro from its rivers and dams. Many other cities have made significant progress; Las Vegas says that all of its municipal buildings now run on solar.
Why, all these efforts seem to be asking, must we be destined to dig dinosaurs from the ground and burn them to make our cars go and our toasters pop? Roughly 150 years ago, no one thought we could convert sunlight into electricity; then in 1876, someone discovered that selenium, when exposed to light, could do just that. Solar hovered at the edges of society for a century before humans found the will to make it affordable and efficient. But once that happened, solar’s rise has been akin to the overnight rock star—from YouTube poseur to stadium attraction in one short decade.
Lippert believes that other superstars are out there. For her, the fact that a simple flywheel, with a few smart tweaks, might turn out to be a force of energy is thrilling beyond what anyone had imagined. “People had no idea that a flywheel is a solution,” Lippert tells me. “It was that unknown. That is what excites me.”
The earth is a battery
Solar panels generate plenty of energy on summer days. Not so much in winter, especially in northern climes. If we intend to go all in on renewable power, storing the stuff for use when we need it later is key. Underground thermal energy storage allows engineers to take excess energy, shunt it below ground, and save it there indefinitely.
Existing caverns, subterranean rocks, or even man-made holes are ideal spots to stash juice. The process is fairly simple:
Solar panels on rooftops—say, garages—heat pipes filled with glycol, a conductive organic compound used in antifreeze. The hot glycol travels to an energy station where it transfers its heat to water. Some of the warmed H2O flows into pipes to nearby homes, providing hot showers. Excess heat directs into long-term storage, hundreds of pipes in bored holes up to 120 feet deep. Hot water moves through these tubes, warms the earth to about 175 degrees, cools off, then travels back to the energy station where the process repeats. Because the earth holds the heat, it can return it to the water pipes in winter.
Leslie Kaufman, a regular contributor to PopSci, writes on climate change and renewable energy.
This article was originally published in the January/February 2018 Power issue of Popular Science.